At the turn of the century, China was torn apart by feuding warlords. The oppressed peasantry relied on the benevolence of the martial arts skilled monks at Shaolin Temple, who offered them food and shelter. Among the most fearsome warlords is General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) who is so ruthless he pursues then shoots dead a rival inside the sacred temple itself. Hou imparts his take-no-prisoners philosophy to his second-in-command, Tsao Man (Nicholas Tse), but behind closed doors remains a devoted husband and father. However, the tables are turned when Hou attempts to assassinate his one-time ally, General Song (Shi Xiao-Hong), but is himself betrayed by the ambitious Tsao Man. His little daughter (Shimada Runa) is killed and his wife (Fan Bing Bing) abandons him in disgust. Seeking refuge at Shaolin Temple, Hou is at first viewed with mistrust but under the guidance of the Abbot (Yue Hoi), his fellow monks and especially a kind-hearted cook with closet kung fu skills, gradually repents his evil ways, becomes a devout Buddhist and masters the art of Shaolin kung fu. Which proves handy when the monks discover Tsao Man is up to no good.
Most martial arts movies about Shaolin Temple revolve around its historical destruction at the hands of the Manchus, whether it’s the stoic superheroism of the Shaw Brothers’ Shaolin Temple (1976) or the schlockier antics in Ninja Hunter (1984). However, this lavish 2011 film, which is supposedly a remake or re-imagining of the 1982 Mainland Chinese film Shaolin Temple that launched Jet Li to screen stardom, caused mild controversy since it centres around a largely fictitious conflict. A huge hit across Chinese speaking territories, Shaolin is a grandiose effort. Sweeping camerawork, sumptuous sets and scenery combine to disguise the somewhat simplistic nature of the story. It is a fairly standard tale of karmic retribution - bad man finds enlightenment - lacking the moral complexity of earlier Shaolin fables like 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984).
To his credit, director Benny Chan - whose past work includes co-directing Who Am I? (1998) and the underrated The Magic Crane (1994) - does a fair job balancing both the martial and meditative elements and pulls off some genuinely profound moments throughout the ultimately affecting story. Chan stages the set-pieces with great flair, be they epic battles, rousing stunts or frenetic fights choreographed by the great Corey Yuen Kwai, former Shaw Brothers actor-choreographer Yuen Tak and the lesser known Li Chung Li, although the stately, solemn pace so common amongst big budget co-productions like this, lacks the vibrant, visceral edge of early Hong Kong fare. The film courts the patriotism of contemporary Chinese viewers with a subplot revealing Tsao Man is allowing the British (although the script diplomatically refers to them as simply: “foreigners”) to unearth Chinese relics in return for guns and ammunition. The dastardly Brits turn the tables on everyone during the spectacular climactic siege of Shaolin Temple, but the finale gets back to the core message of forgiveness and rebirth concluding with a powerful image that does convey the true spirit of Buddhism.
For such a seemingly remorseless and hard-bitten warlord, General Hou certainly embraces the tenets of Buddhism quickly and easily. Fortunately, a typically charismatic Andy Lau lends this hastily enacted character arc some gravitas and proves his martial arts skills have not dimmed with age. Co-star Nicholas Tse, an oft-underrated actor able to segue seamlessly from heartthrob hero to heartless villain, delivers sterling support. Elsewhere, each of the Shaolin monks have vivid, likeable personalities and are played by a fine array of actors, including the terrific Jacky Wu Jing (who has one of the most affecting scenes) and talented rising stars Yu Shao-Qun and Xing Yu. Of course the big, scene-stealing role belongs to a certain Jackie Chan, who plays the temple cook whose humble facade hides wells of wisdom. He becomes Hou’s staunchest ally and mentor and, though he feigns ignorance in martial arts, bursts into the film’s big crowd-pleasing moment when he and a gang of child monks kick the crap out of a squad of soldiers - wielding a giant wok. One expects great things in the future from young Mr. Chan, this plucky newcomer has the right stuff.